Tuesday, August 15, 2017

REVIEW: 'Manhunt: Unabomber' - A Key Decision Leads to a Huge Surveillance Operation in 'Publish or Perish'

Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber - Episode 1.04 "Publish or Perish"

The Unabomber will stop bombing if his Manifesto is published. Fitz pushes for publication with S.A.C. Ackerman, who presents Fitz's argument to Attorney General Janet Reno.

Throughout the three opening hours of Manhunt: Unabomber, I've talked a great deal about the show's structure. How telling the story in two distinct time periods is fascinating and how the two stories inform the audience in how to process information. It's been an intriguing way to tell this story. The manhunt is one thing and the conviction is another. Both were greatly influenced by Fitz because he could connect with Ted Kaczynski in a way the rest of the FBI couldn't. And now, it's important to once again bring this subject up in an episode that is only set in one timeline. The events of "Publish or Perish" take place solely in 1995. That means that Paul Bettany only plays Ted through voiceover of the Unabomber's manifesto. He isn't actually seen at all. He's just a terrifying and looming presence that only adds more pressure to an already tense situation. It's a nice and intimate way to tell this story. The audience has the awareness that it's all going to lead to his capture. Fitz's tactics will ultimately reveal Ted to be the famed serial killer. But the show wisely keeps the audience in this moment where everything is seemingly on the line for the leaders of the task force. Fitz's future depends on coming up with an actionable approach upon publishing the manifesto. Don needs to decide if it's a risk worth taking or one that will ultimately end his career. It's very personal in that way. As such, spending all of the time in 1995 adds to the effectiveness of the story. It's likely a future episode will be set entirely in 1997. But right now, this manhunt is intensifying and needs as much time and focus as possible.

Everything hinges around the mystery of whether or not the FBI can trust the Unabomber on his word. The government has the protocol of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. The government won't just give in to Ted's demands because his ideologies are morally reprehensible. That's the line Dan and Stan are selling hard in their first assessment of the situation. Of course, Fitz is pushing for the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the manifesto because he believes the answers lie within the words. Releasing the document to as many people as possible will increase the likelihood of someone being able to identify the madman. That's what Fitz truly believes. But it also feels like a long shot strategy. The FBI has been chasing the Unabomber for too long to place all of its bets on a long shot. But that's what makes it so curious that Don listens to Fitz's advice and contemplates whether or not to take it to Attorney General Janet Reno. Don has been a complicated character so far because he keeps going back-and-forth on whether he is supportive or dismissive of Fitz. It's easy for him to cast Fitz and his crazy ideas aside. But when the pressure increases, he comes to take Fitz's analysis of the situation seriously and that has been a huge motivation in his ultimate decision. That plays a role in his handing of this new moral quandary as well.

It helps that Fitz's new profile and determination for linguistics analysis is the only viable lead that Don has. For years, the FBI has seen the "Call Nathan R" note as the first break in the case. And now, it's revealed to be the accident of a guy working in the mailroom at the New York Times. It's a false lead that didn't come from the Unabomber. The task force has literally been doing nothing meaningful in this investigation for a long time. It's a crushing moment of realization for Don. His job is on the line as he heads into Reno's office. He has nothing affirmative and finite to tell her about this case. Doing nothing means that the Unabomber will keep sending packages through the mail and killing innocent people. But releasing the manifesto will legitimize the killer and his demented cause. It's a precarious situation. One where Don needs Fitz to come up with a good solution to make it a risk worth taking. Of course, all that Fitz, Stan and Tabby are able to come up with is releasing the manifesto in the Washington Post because there's only one place in the Bay Area to buy it. The FBI will just have to surveil everyone who picks up a copy. Again, it's a long shot that will act as one of the biggest operations the FBI has ever carried out. It has the potential to be a rousing success. But it will be a career ender if it doesn't pay off at all. Don makes the decision to go forward with the plan. He knows the risks. He just hopes Fitz's new profile is right because this is the only solution the task force has at the moment.

So, the rest of the episode delves into the sting operation to surveil the one newsstand selling the Washington Post. Fitz and Natalie are excited that their ideas are finally being taken seriously by the leaders of the FBI. But it's still a daunting and arduous task ahead of them. It produces a fantastic and stunning sequence as well. It's the kind of sequence that I enjoy watching. Seeing a show tackle surveillance in a realistic way is always thrilling to me. It's very methodical. There are multiple agents on the ground and in the buildings nearby watching this particular part of the city. It's a vast operation that could go awry at any moment in time. It's a ton of information flying around that can be difficult to keep track off. Suspects are being added and subtracted to the list at all times. When someone buys a copy of the paper, their name goes on the board and an agent starts to follow them. When it's appropriate, they make the approach to interrogate them about why they bought the paper on that specific day. Every lead is coming up empty until the final man arrives at the newsstand. He fits Fitz's profile of the Unabomber. It's Tabby's turn to follow the suspect. That gives credibility to this really being the Unabomber coming to collect his prize of the manifesto being in print for all to read. It becomes this very elaborate chase. Tabby is at the center of it. That's a welcome change of pace. For once, she's the one determining the success or failure of this mission. If she loses him, all of this will be for nothing.

It's thrilling and exciting to watch. The suspect seems very secretive and suspicious. He fears being watched and worries that he is being followed. Tabby comes across as unsuspecting but is also keeping a close eye on him as well. Meanwhile, Fitz and Don are back at the headquarters awaiting further information. They lose contact with her. The worries and fears start escalating. Is this the Unabomber? Will Tabby take him down? The tension is somewhat tempered by the fact that the 1997 story is all about Ted being captured because of Fitz's profile leading to a search warrant of his cabin. So, it seems unlikely that this big espionage mission is going to work out. But there is still the suspicion of whether or not this is actually Ted. He's definitely a criminal. He runs as soon as he realizes what Tabby is doing. He attacks her. He opens fire on her with a gun he conveniently has. But in the end, it's not the Unabomber. It's just some random drug dealer with multiple warrants for his arrest. That's why he ran and engaged with gunfire. It's a crushing defeat for the entire task force. They risked their careers for this operation. And now, they are reduced down to nothing but relying on the tip line for new leads. The consequences will be severe and swift for Don. He hedged his bets and came up short. It's disappointing for Reno as well - especially given the case load she is working on right now. This is the moment where the entire team feels like all hope is lost.

Of course, the show doesn't linger in that moment for too long. Fitz is able to return home to his family. He's still unhappy and tormented by the details of the Unabomber case. But he's not self-destructive like he is bound to become by 1997. And then, the action cuts away to Paris and an unknown woman who learns about the manifesto being published on the FBI's website. She takes the time to log onto the world wide web and read the article. She is clearly important somehow. She'll be the person who comes forward to change the investigation once more. She's the reason for the audience to feel hopeful about this case - in addition to everything the 1997 story has already told us. It's a surprising moment because this person is actually a part of Ted Kaczynski's family. It proves that his family was aware of his thoughts and are now potentially worried about him being a mass murderer. It's still ultimately just a tease. But it's just enough to prove that Fitz's strategy actually worked. Someone did recognize the linguistic stylings of the manifesto as someone they actually know. That's a huge deal.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Publish or Perish" was written by Nick Towne and directed by Greg Yaitanes.
  • It's important that the show makes the audience aware of all the cases that Janet Reno is overseeing right now as Attorney General. The Unabomber case is just one of many for her in this job. And yet, literally laying them all out on her desk with the names in bold letters is just a really blunt way of doing so.
  • Ellie visits Fitz in San Francisco. It's her chance for a vacation away from the kids. It starts off very nice as well with them getting to enjoy some alone time together while Don is in Washington, D.C. But then, Fitz needs to create and enact his plan. That means his time and attention is taken away from her. So, she has to decide whether or not she wants to stay knowing that he won't really be with her.
  • Ellie also meets Natalie. The camera movements make it clear right away that she's jealous of this new woman in Fitz's life who he seems incredibly close to. She's a visitor just like Ellie is. And yet, Fitz has formed this relationship with her and hasn't told his wife about it at all. It's surprising. But it's also a conventional storytelling twist as well that is a little lame.
  • Michael Nouri shows up as Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine who makes an offer to publish the Unabomber's manifesto. The Unabomber even responses saying that if Penthouse is the only offer then he'll have to kill one last time. It all feels random but is bound to be more important in the future as well.
  • The moment where Fitz lays awake at night because the noise from the streetlight is keeping him up is weird. It plays as him trying to take his vengeance on a world trying to control him. But him going out with a gun to shoot the light only not to is ultimately just too forced for thematic reasons.